What is a legacy?
What is a legacy?
I've been both hearing and using the word "legacy" a lot lately, probably more than I ever have. It's come up in my work, in my personal life; with strangers. At 26, it's a word that's been weighing heavy on my mind. What is my legacy? What am I leaving behind? Will it be good? And then I think - can anyone truly know what their legacy will be before they are gone? We all strive to leave something behind, but who can be sure that that specific thing which we work towards will be what matters in the end?
Today would be Alexander Hamilton's 263rd, or 261st, birthday. There's a little discrepancy about his actual year of birth - some historians believe he was born in 1757, the year his tomb in New York reflects, while others are convinced, by way of a poem he allegedly published in the Royal Danish American Gazette in April 1771, that he was born in 1755. Regardless of the year however, over 250 years ago, on the Caribbean Island of Nevis, an ambitious boy was born. Someone who also let the word "legacy" hang heavy over his head. Someone who would, by sheer determination, rise up, and forever change the course of America.
"What is a legacy? It's planting seeds in a garden you never get to see." - Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical
So who was Alexander Hamilton? Ask a lot of the youth today and you might here, "He's the ten-dollar Founding Father!" And while they're not wrong, there's a lot more to the face of the ten dollar bill.
Hamilton, orphaned at about 12 years old due to his mother's death (his father had previously left them), is one our nation's Founding Fathers. He was George Washington's aide-de-camp, the first Secretary of Treasury, and a delegate of the U.S. Constitution; he founded the nation's financial system, established the first national bank (Bank of New York), the Federalist party, the United States Coast Guard, and the New York Post newspaper. He was a lawyer, father, husband, lover, fighter, and friend. In his youth, prior to coming to America, he worked with a local import/export firm in the Caribbean which traded with New York and New England.
Perhaps his legacy is simple. He helped found the policies and principals by which this country runs. But perhaps, it is more than that. Perhaps the legacy that Hamilton fought to create exceeds all of his accomplishments, and in turn isn't about any of them at all, but instead a reflection of his immigration to America; his ambition to make a name for himself and birth a nation.
Hamilton's last known observation, as he was rowed across the Hudson river, toward Weehawken in the early hours of July 12, 1804, was a hope for people to find their way to New York from other parts of the world like he had, and rise up.
"There are strong minds in every wake of life that will rise superior to the disadvantages of situation, and will command the tribute due to their merit." - Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist no. 36
By now, you've probably heard of the Broadway hit Hamilton. If not, I think it's safe to assume you've been living under a rock.
A quick summary: It's a musical about America's Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, set to a hip hop and R&B score.
"This is a story about America then, told by America now." - Lin-Manuel Miranda
Symbolic power is real. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created, wrote, and starred as Hamilton, made it a point to represent the Founding Fathers in a way that was true to today's America. He cast Black and Latino actors to play just about every role, those who are still fighting for freedom, giving them their chance to be seen for who they are, and represent America on stage over half a dozen nights a week. Perhaps that alone is part of Lin's legacy, mirroring Hamilton's lowly origins and struggles as he made his way to the top with folks who are fighting the same fight today.
Alexander Hamilton called New York home, just as Lin does. He had to work to get there, much like the cast of Hamilton had. They way Hamilton used pamphlets and essays to rise up, Lin used rap. Lin took Hamilton's flaws, failures, loves, hates, opinions, and ambitions, and made them relatable. He made Alexander Hamilton more human than he'd ever been since the 18th century. And this again, is where legacy comes in. Perhaps this was all part of the plan, the legacy that Alexander Hamilton left, and the legacy that Lin is still creating for himself, but also still creating for Alexander.
"When you're gone who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?" - Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical
I joke sometimes that Lin must be Alexander reincarnated because of the lengths he's gone to to tell his story in such a way that he has, and who is to say they are or aren't at least somehow cosmically connected? When you tell someone's story, when you keep someone alive, do they not become a part of your own legacy, and vice versa? Maybe the legacies of these two men are connected so that the legacies of all Black, Latino, and children of all minority groups will leave a mark on America in the same inspiring and revolutionary way.
So, what is my legacy? I'd like to think part of it will be my kindness towards the world, but I'd also like to have an impact large enough to make a change.
What is your legacy?
Want more Hamilton?
Read Ron Chernow's biography on Alexander Hamilton here.
Listen to the Broadway soundtrack here.